Bagan Sunset

The next morning our flight left Yangon at 6:05 am; another 4:15 am wakeup and another early morning flight. The weather outside was 60 and it was funny to see all the guys outside our hotel dressed in hats, gloves and coats while I walked around in my short sleeve shirt and thin hiking pants. The usual confusion at the airport when you arrive and your not quite sure what to do. Which line to stand in, where to go.

The domestic airports in Myanmar are a throwback to the way travel must have happened in the 1950s. They are small. There were consistent experiences at each of our domestic airports.

  • There is no real difference between checkins and the gates. You entered one big room where there were small desks for ticket counters. No boarding pass had departure time, seat assignments or gate numbers.
  • After getting your boarding passes each party member received a sticker on their shoulder with the three letter airport code of your destination
  • Your checked bags where tagged and then piled in the middle of the floor. Some people seemed disconcerted about this because since their bags hadn’t disappeared from view on a luggage escalator they were less confident they’d get on board. Eventually they’d be thrown onto wheeled carts and pushed out to the planes by attendants.
  • You had to go through immigration before departure and your boarding passes had to be stamped. Upon arrive you had to go through immigration again and have your passports recorded.
  • There is virtual no security; your bags are scanned. You didn’t have to take out your laptops. Didn’t matter if you had water in your carry on or if you had things in your pockets. You walked through the metal detector which always beeped, you just showed the security attendant you pockets contents and they spent 2 seconds waving the wand over your chest and pants.
  • Transition to the “gate” was just another large open room waiting area. If there were flights that were departing in close proximity to one another an attendant would come wandering through the waiting room holding a sign with the airline, destination and flight numb. You then walk out on the tarmac passing the passengers who have just arrived, one engine on the far side of the plane is still running and the smell of fuel washes over you.
  • Once on board the plane its free seating and the only requirement is that you put on your seatbelt; you can use your laptop, iPad and iPhone the entire time, taking off and landing. Depending on the length of your flight you’ll climb to your cruising altitude which for us was never higher than 16,000 feet and one time was only 5000 feet.

Bagan GuideWe arrived in Bagan to find our guide Kyi Soe, pronounced Gee Sue and our driver Mr. Kai waiting for us. We cleared immigration, loaded our bags in the van and made the short drive to our hotel : The Amazing Bagan, which used to be the Bagan Golf Course resort. The grounds are nice, the pool is great, the rooms (we stayed in the suites) were separate buildings. After checking in and throwing our bags in our room we set out to explore the temples.



Bagan is one of those magical places where when you see photos you can’t believe such a place exists and when your there in person its almost overwhelming how amazing the place is. Myanmar sits between India, Thailand and China and Buddhism was introduced during the 11th century and from then through 13th century the kings in the kingdom of Pagan went on a building spree like no other. Constructing over 5000 temples at its height, now a days there is somewhere between 2700 to 4000. The entire land is dotted with temples, many of them are small stupa a couple of stories high and 30 meters square, but there are over three or four dozen large imposing massive temples that are 70 or more meters high.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Our first stop was at the Shwezigon Pagoda, this is Bagan’s best preserved temple. Shwezigon is a smaller version of Shewedagon with its zedi‘s spire covered in gilded paint.  The ground are full of pigeons, and other small shrines.  You can walk around and in one area where pilgrims kneel to pray you as you prostrate you can see the top of the stupa reflected in a small pool of water cut into the stone.

Kyi Soe then took us to a very traditional Myanmar restaurant which consisted of many small dishes. The main dishes were curried meat, which was mostly very tough and was 80% oil with a little bit of sauce. There were other dishes like chickpeas and other curried vegetables that weren’t as oily. Other meals in Bagan were at Sarabha, which had Chinese dishes as well as other curry’s that were a bit more creamy and more palatable to foreigners. Afterwards we  went back to hotel to relax and swim before heading out for the sunset. We also ate one night at the Thiripyitsaya Resort which overlooks the Irrawaddy River, it was your usual expensive good western/westernized food. After our lunch we returned to the hotel where we let the kids swim and play in the pool and relaxed for the afternoon.

Smiling Buddha

That evening we set out with Kyi Soe to see a couple more temples and the sunset. First we visited Ananda Pahto – super high ceilings and amazing Bhudda’s that up close seem sad and as you back away from them a smile emerges. Most everywhere went the people were fascinated with our children, Miles and Sofi for their hair, Miles in tight nappy curls and Sofi in her braids and Finn and Eli for their fair skin blond hair. We chatted with a group from villiage outisde Bagan that were visiting Ananda Pahto, there was a young girl with a baby on her hip and three others running around her. She seriously looked 14, we had Kyi Soe ask her age, she replied that only the baby was her child and she was 24!  We were amazed at how youthful the people all looked. For the sunset I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t crowded with tourists, so Kyi Soe took us to Shwenan Tintaw a smaller less well known temple with a platform. The steps were crazy narrow, steep and tall. There was an attendant with a flash light at the top of the stairs as you turned the corner to guide you up the steps. They were so narrow I had a hard time squeezing through with my backpack on and the camera bag hanging off to one side and Stac felt a bit claustrophobic. On the top plaza there were sweeping views of the temples and only a Japanese TV crew filming the sunset. The views of the sunset were nice but there was nothing really photo worthy, no good light on any close temples and no decent silhouettes to speak of.  There is a difference between watching a sunset and photographing a sunset.  Thus my first sunset while gorgeous ended with me being disappointed in the sunset photographs I’d captured.

Balloons over Bagan

Balloons over Bagan
In the process of doing my research I had booked a balloon flight with Balloons over Bagan, a once in a life time opportunity to view the amazing temple complex from the air.  I’d first flown in a balloon as a teenager for a scouting activity and loved the experience.   My flight was at sunrise. I woke at 5:30 am and got on the Balloon over Bagan bus which drove us to our launch point for the day, the soccer fields in Nyaung U. They fed us some tea/coffee and cookies, and after a brief introduction divided us into our groups. We gathered at the basket and balloons for a safety briefing. As we wandered out they were filling the balloons with cold air using the fans and I was so entrance by their billowing forms that I followed the wrong group until I was retrieved by one of the crew. We were instructed by our pilot on how to climb in, what was ok to touch and not to; how to assume the landing position (everything put away, sitting down on the seat, holding onto two handles).  Then our pilot had us step back as he fired the gas jets and the balloon rose, we climbed in and were off. Soaring up over the city with the Irrawaddy River stretching out before us. Smoke from morning fires to keep warm hung in the trees and blew among the temples as the sun just started cresting and shining over the temple complex. Flying by a balloon is a surreal sensation, once your aloft and the burners are off your just floating so quiet and peacefully.  And the speed is as slow as the wind blows, drifting along you can really soak in the views below.

Balloons over Bagan

The pilot basically controls only the ascent and descent and is searching for the right level where the currents are blowing in the right direction. Our goal was to fly over the temple zone and land somewhere after an hour or so. In order to catch the right winds we had to ascend up to 700 feet and then as we blew toward the temple zone we began a fairly fast descent. The Balloon over Bagan bus and other employees chased us on motorcycles. We landed in a field next to Pyathada Paya temple where we were served a nice breakfast of fruit, banana bread and champagne or juice. While hanging out chatting an elderly gentleman with an Australian accent was talking about a Peter Weir few films he’d made as a director. He mentioned that he’d directed Galipoli and folks asked him about working with Mel Gibson. Afterwards I had a chance to chat with him 1-1. I asked him what his most recent film, he said : “The Long Way Home which sadly not to many people saw.” I told him that I had just watched this, an epic escape tale of Russian prisoners who hiked out of Siberia, over the desert through the Himilayas to India and freedom, though I warned him it was probably a pirated copy in China and he probably didn’t get any money for it.  I then asked him what his most famous film was and he said Master and Commander of the Farside of the World, Dead Poets Society and Witness. Suddenly I knew he was one of my favorite directors but couldn’t think of his name, so I asked him : Peter Weir. Miles and I love Master and Commander and have watched it many times. Finally back on the bus they dropped us back at our hotel.

Horse and Buggys

Buggy Riding
I rushed in and grabbed some breakfast with the kids and grabbed my bag and at 9:30 while Miles stayed with Stac to hang out at the pool, the Sheppards and Sofi and I joined Kyi Soe and three horse and buggies to do more touring temples. Bagan is a fairly quiet place. There is three very small towns of Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan.  Old Bagan was vacated of most people to New Bagan to make way for tourism.  There are temples scattered through out the two towns but especially Old Bagan. Old Bagan sits adjacent to a huge open plain where the majority of the temples are situated. There are many very large temples, and hundreds and hundreds of smaller ones. There are far too many large ones to even visit in a few days let alone the small ones. There are several basic ways to see the temples. You could walk but this would be for a very long day, for example from our hotel it was a 9 mile round trip to Old Bagan. You can ride bikes, which can be rented cheaply or gratis at your hotel. There is very little traffic on the roads and the plain is all dirt roads. Riding bikes across these is fairly easy except for the sandy parts and you must be careful to avoid the bushes which have 2 inch spikes, they’ll easily poke a hole in you let alone your bikes tires. You can also take a rented car, or a taxi or sadly a big huge tour bus. (If I was the mayor of Bagan the first thing I’d do would be to outlaw these big tour buses. We didn’t see too many of them, but you could see how they could get out of hand if tourism picks up) The last and perhaps the best way to see the temples is to rent a horse and buggy. There are over 200 of these horses in Bagan. The buggy has two wheels with a bench seat directly behind the horse where the driver sits and can also fit one passenger. The rear section is a day bed of sorts with cushion on the bottom and sides where two or three people can recline. The horses take you along the dirt roads from temple to temple, the pace is nice and you get a chance to really take in the scenery.

Among the Ruins

The size and scale of some of the temples is at time almost overwhelming. The first one our list was the Dhammayangyi Pahto the largest of them all. This massive structure had ceilings on the first level so high they disappeared into the dark. The upper levels were closed and the top has actually collapsed during the 1975 earthquake that shook the region. It is believed Dhammayangyi is haunted by ghosts as the king who had it built was so cruel if the quality of the workmanship was not up to his standards he had the worker killed.

Golden Bagan

From there we rode around to several others for our sunset Kyi Soe took us to another one that didn’t get many tourists, for the life of me even though I took a video of him pronouncing the name, I can’t translate it and find the name.  But this place was gorgeous.  The light in Bagan is amazing. The dusty clay colored plains, the temples in red brick and all the gold. The domes of many stupa and temples are covered in gold. Most Buddha are covered in gold. You can even buy gold leaf at the temple and add to a statue.  as we arrived for sunset the light was simply amazing; everything glowed in an almost magical way. The top  of the stupa was covered in red brick, the dome was gilded with cracking red showing underneath and everything glowed the most deep rich colors in the late evening light. I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the colors were.  I took some portraits of Sofi and the Sheppards.  We watched until the sun went down and then walked out along the rode among the bushes to get some shots of the spires in the afterglow before heading back home to bed.

Dawn Patrol

Dawn Patrol
Sunday morning I woke at 5:15 am and got my gear ready for the day. I wore a pair of shorts and a long sleeve shirt. I got on my complimentary bike from the hotel at 6:05 and headed down the dirt road leaving the hotel before I turned onto the blacktop road lined with Nim trees. The sky was still pitch black and my headlamp shone a meager pool of light on the road in-between the big fluorescent lights set every 100 meters or so. Turning onto the main road I wheeled along in the dark. My right pedal slowly began to come undone, falling off piece by piece until I was left with just a round slippery spoke of the pedal. My goal was the Mingalar Zedi temple, but when I got to the cross roads the sky was beginning to show and I was hurrying and turned left instead of right. I doubled back and turned off on a dirt road and found three small stupa. There was no staircase but I was able to climb up between two of them and perch on the corner of one.

Bagan Sunrise

Not an amazing sunset in terms of color, but I was all alone and everything was quiet as I watched the light come up. After the sunrise, I climbed down, mounted my bike and rode off the dirt roads heading north in the basic direction of my hotel. The roads are very sandy and are inter-mixed between some harder pack and deep sections of loose sand. When you hit these loose sections your tires loose all grip and you slide out, best is to get enough speed to plow through them.

Over Bagan

I stopped at the small nearby Lawkahteikpan temple and watched the Balloons over Bagan start to float across the temple zone and descend.  Back on my bike a large steep and tall white pagoda dominated the scene ahead (Shwesandaw) and I rode my bike across the very bumpy furrows of a field and parked my bike at the base of a very steep stair case. I climbed to the top to find myself all alone with amazing panoramic views stretching in all directions. The low haze from the morning fires still drifted through the valley and the balloons were drifting over the temples. I sat taking photos while I watched the balloons drift and descend among the fields and temples. As a large tour bus pulled up and a group of tourists ascended the steps I packed up my stuff and pedaled away on my bike. Back home we relaxed again by the pool with the kids.  The night before Lesley had gotten the stomach bug and had spent all evening throwing up, she hobbled around bent over in pain.  One down and what would be several more to come, but more on that later.

Thaebeik Hmauk

That afternoon I arranged for three more buggies to take us out through the temples.  Our destination was some of the lesser visited temples.   Despite the huge number of temples, each has some basic similarities.  Each temple typically has four sides to it, one for each incarnation of the Buddha. Statue after statue of Buddha. Christendom might have created icons of Jesus on the cross but clearly they have nothing on the symbol of Buddha. Most temples have a bare minimum four, many have multiple levels with 4 Buddha on each side and some have inlets in the corridors that are inset with hundred of more statues. And they come in array of positions, reclining, meditating, touching the ground, traveling (touching his robes), raised arm.  One of the temples we went to see was Thaebeik Hmauk.  There are no vendors outside and when we pulled up there was a family that was dirt poor and looked to be living the hard life. The grandfather seemed a bit kooky, the grandmother and her grandson were teeny and there was a “special” brother who was laying outside on a pillow and appeared to be drunk or just plain wrong in the head. As we approached he yelled MOOOONNNNEEEEY in a very odd fashion. The temple interior and upper levels were gorgeous but the people gave Stacey the creeps and we left after not to long. We quickly visited Sulamani Phato before attempting to find a temple roof to watch our last sunset, we quickly ran up one temple to see the sun descend below the horizon and then rode the buggys into Old Bagan to have dinner.

That night as we packed our bags we were ready to move on to a new location I was still amazed to reflect on what a mystical place Bagan is. All the ancient temples that dot the land, overwhelming in their sheer number, let alone the size and beauty.  I really can’t wait to go back and explore some more, there is so much more to see.  I would guess you could spend months there and not see it all.

Categories: By Mark, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Chinese New Year In Myanmar

Smiling Buddha

This is the first in a series of blogs about our trip to Myanmar (Burma) over Chinese New Year in January 2012.

Our first interaction with Myamar began our trip back to the US in December for our daughters wedding. We landed in San Francisco and spent the night there before flying on to Salt Lake City, our taxi driver at the airport was from Yangon.  He told us about his family back home, how his mother and daughter were at a Bhuddist monastery on a retreat.  When he dropped us off at our hotel he sweetly thanked us with a bow and closed palms and wished us a pleasant journey to his country. This was to be an auspicious pre-cursor echoed our entire experience in his wonderful country.

Planning to Go

The pen is mightier than the sword

The sanctioning of Myanmar by the US State Department created a negative pall over an entire nation and kept two worlds far apart.  Perception is a powerful thing and the international policies of the United States have left many countries in a very unfavorable light.  Granted there are warranted reasons for the US’s actions but things are never so black and white, and the power of a such a negative label often discourages further understanding.  I knew so little of the country, its history and its people.  Vague facts stood out like islands in the sea of isolation : military conflicts, protesting monks, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Nobel Peace prize.   Ignorance bred fear and concern.   When visiting Stan last October in Vietnam we were discussing Chinese New Year, as is my usual bents I leaned toward adventure and Stac toward comfort and relaxation.  Stan pushed hard that we consider visiting Myanmar, he arguments : the country was beautiful, the people were friendly and they needed our tourist dollars.  I also talked to Tahir at work who had visited ten years ago in the early 90’s and had loved it, he’d visited Bagan, Inle Lake and Ngapali Beach.

So I began researching. First there was controversy over whether we should even go.  At the time Lonely planet had entire section largely centered on moral grounds of whether you would end up supporting the government (bad) or be helping the local economy and breaking down isolation (good).   Much of this was dissipated by rapid changes in the government, visit by Hilary Clinton and finally normalization of relations between Myanmar and the US the day before we left.  Perhaps though the most compelling arguments were put forth in Thant Myint-U’s excellent book : The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, in summary there were that sanctions were largely ineffective against the government, basically the military, since they controlled all resources and they could survive for years to come.  Further these sanctions reinforced the government’s perception that they should withdraw.  And lastly only through interaction with the outside world could we break down the isolation and “provide fresh air to the stale political environment.”

Surprisingly for a place that I’d never really even heard of there was a lot of online activity, both Bagan and Inle Lake looked amazing and Ngapali Beach sounded warm and relaxing. Stac was concerned, actually quite concerned and I assured her based on what I’d seen that there were hotels that could offer comfort while we were in adventurous and beautiful places.  She agreed with a warning that if things went wrong, like she got malaria or our kids were stolen that it’d be entirely my fault.  We purchased tickets, got our visa’s and began searching for a local tour guide in Myanmar to help us with our in-country tour.   Based on recommendations from other Beijingers on Beijing Cafe, we found Tin Htun with 7 Day Tours in Yangon and began our plans.   Our itinerary was as follows :

  • Fly on China Air from Beijing to Yangon, the only “direct flight”, which actually stops in Kunming on a Thursday.
  • Spend Thursday night in Yangon
  • Friday fly to Bagan
  • Monday fly to Inle Lake
  • Wednesday fly to Ngapali Beach
  • Saturday fly back to Yangon
  • Sunday fly back to Beijing

Domestic flights inside of Myanmar are unpredictable enough they didn’t recommend trying to make connections the same day; however we didn’t find this to be the case for our flights.  Only one of our internal flights was delayed and this only by an hour and it was at the end of the day.  Through another old friend Mark Warburton we’d also been introduced to another travel agent Sanda Than, who was a friend of his and we had her arrange transfers from airport to hotel and a tour guide in Bagan.  Other than that with our Christmas flights back to the US for our daughters I’d had very little time to do any research, though while in the states I’d visited a doctor and gotten a prescription for pain killers, in the event that anything like the dislocated elbow incident of Guilin happened again, Doxy as an anti-malaria medication and Ciproflaxin as an antibiotic in the event that we got any stomach bug while there.  After returning to Beijing we also visited our local clinic to get a typhoid vaccination for good measure.


Paying 7 Day Tours for the hotels and in-country flights ended up being an adventure in international money laundering.  Due to sanctions credit cards are not able to be used in 99.9 % of the hotels and there is virtual no real banking system.  For payment I had to make an international wire via our bank in the US to a Singapore company (which had nothing in its name to do with travel) who in turn somehow got the money to Myanmar and 7 Day Tours.  The rest of our trip and our transfers we would pay for in cash once we arrived in the country.  When asking Tin Htun how much money we should bring he said that we’d probably spend $300 on food and then we just would need to bring some money for souvenirs and the like.  I settled on $1800 and in the end this ended up being a grave under-estimate.  This isn’t because Myanmar is an expensive location, more that the fact that once your in-country there are zero ATMs.  No banks to withdraw from.  You take for granted the easy access to your money until your completely cut off.  And I also think its easy to under estimate what you spend back home when you use your card everywhere and withdraw whenever you want cash. Combine this with the fact that your paying for taxi’s and at times your isolated in a western hotel with comparative to local options exorbitant prices far from cheaper alternatives, you can easily spend $75 plus a day just on food.  Add in everything else and the money goes quickly.  Miss your flight and have to spend an extra night and you can run completely dry.  Word to the wise take extra cash and then a bit more in reserve in the event that something goes awry.

Landing in Yangon

After getting back to Beijing there was only 10 days before we left for Myanmar and we’d barely unpacked our Christmas bags and put away the Christmas tree before we were packing our bags for Myanmar. Our flight left Beijing at 8:05 am which seems like an agreeable early hour when your booking your trip in the abstract but when your showering at 4:15 am and trying to get the kids up and ready its way too early.  We left our apartment at 5 am, freezing in our thin sweatshirts since we knew that Myanmar would be much hotter than Beijing.  We were flying as direct as you can get from Beijing to Yangon, a flight through Kunming.  Its the same flight and the itinerary doesn’t even list the arrival and departure times in Kunming; however after we airborne they informed us that we had to deplane, take everything off while they cleaned the plane and then we rebounded.  Same seats and everything.  What a pain.

We load up and off load and gather by the gate where an airline attendant tells us that Yangon should wait a minute.  Miles had to pee and we ran off to the bathroom.  Suddenly the group is off following the attendant through the crowded entry way.  Stac, Sofi and the Sheppards were laggardly following and we joined them heading in the general direction of the group except we’ve lost them in the crowds of travelers. Suddenly I spot the light blue shirt of the annoying dude who sat in front of us and shushed us because we were talking too loud.  They were turning the corner and heading up an escalator.  We start up about 10 feet behind them and when we arrive at the top we’ve lost them again.  Afar off in a another room we spot blue shirt man again and gather near immigration where they hand out another set of boarding passes.  Then we have to go through immigration and fill out departure cards because technically the flight to Kunming is domestic (though it left from the international terminal) and fill out an departure card.   After getting through immigration we go through security again and go back to the gate area where we wait for our flight to re-board.  The take off was delayed for some reason even though our plane was sitting on the tarmac, since we’d just landed on it.  Finally we board a transfer bus and walked on the tarmac to plane.  A short 90 minute flight and we are in Myanmar.

When we landed in Yangon and queued in the immigration line for foreigners, there were three other lines, one for Myanmar, one for diplomats and one for seamen(?!).  We saw Sanda Than waiting for us outside the glass with a sign Mr. Mark Griffith 7 pax.  Through customs we got our bags and loaded into the van with our driver Tun Tun Oo and Sanda.  A 30 minute ride to the Kandagwyati Palace where the girls and kids got a bite to eat after a long day of travel.  I changed into something cooler and waited in the restaurant itching to get out before the sunset. I tried to be patient, but as a photographer I get obsessed about the time of day when the light is nice, in the end it turned out to not really matter.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwe means gold and Dagon is the old name of the city (meaning hills) before it was renamed to Yangon which means peace.  The pagoda is the holiest site in Myanmar and one of the top holy sites in Buddhism; it houses relics from all four Buddha’s and most importantly eight hairs of Siddhartha after he achieved enlightenment and became The Buddha. The main feature is a zedi or stupa, which stands 360 feet tall in the center of a raised temple complex. The entire stupa is plated in solid gold, not just gold leaf. The top is encrusted in jewels with over 5000 diamonds and 1500 rubies. On the very top is a 76 carat diamond which is nearly twice the size of the Hope Diamond. The pagoda glows a bright golden color in the sun and even at night when its lit from all sides by electric lights.

Shewedagon at Dusk

We arrived at the elevator entrance, took of our shoes (a strict requirement at all temples and pagodas) paid our $5 entrance fee and took the elevators up to the Pagoda’s main level.  Surrounding the main pagoda, aren innumerable set of temples, smaller stupa and shrines. As you exit the elevators you walk through a covered walkway past a large banyan tree that grows from cuttings of the original tree where Siddhartha achieved enlightment and around buildings until the main stupa comes into view. Here I just stopped, in dumbstruck awe. The size, the color and the majesty of this ancient building were overwhelming. The evening was warm and crowds walked clockwise around the shrine; many stopping to pray. Monks lit candles and incense. Devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and poured water over statutes with a prayers. You could feel the palpable sense of reverence and you immediately could tell of how deep the religious sense of Buddhism runs in Myanmar.  A monk spent 40 minutes or so walking us around the pagoda, telling us about the shrine.  One of the the cool things he did was take us to several points on the grounds where if you stood and stared at the very top of the shrine you could see different colors of light glinting through the prism of the diamonds on top; red, green, yellow, orange and even blue.

Later that evening we returned to our hotel where we met Sanda again to change money.  Usually this is done at the airport  but she agreed to give us the same rate published at the airport and amazingly she pulled bundle after bundle of Myanmar Kyat (chat,  an “at” sound) out of her bag.  She didn’t have quite enough to change all of Austin’s money so she agreed to come back later, I was upstairs but Austin said the table was piled hi with bills and he felt like some ganster.  Then we met Mr. Tin Htun, paid him for the rest of our trip and picked up our vouchers for the hotel and our tickets for our domestic flights.  Off to bed, our journey into the interior would begin tomorrow with another super early flight.

More Information

Future blogs on…
As I finish them I’ll link them here

  • Bagan
  • Inle Lake
  • Ngapali Beach
  • Getting Home



  • As I finish them I’ll link them here



Categories: By Mark, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ice Skating at HouHai


First thing to know is that despite the title of this post we found most of the ice skating was at QianHai, south of HouHai. When we started out we didn’t know that, but we wanted to beat the crowds so we parked outside HouHai lake at 9am between two trees on the side of the road.

We walked out to the lake and around and didn’t find anyone skating though the lake was full of fisherman and people walking across the ice.  We even saw at a small park a 30 meter hole of open water near the shore where there were several folks swimming in speedos and swimming caps.  We decided to cut across the lake and stepped out onto the ice and across.  About 40 meters out the ice started settling and popping; an unsettling sound and sensation to be sure. Miles got spooked, started crying those big alligator tears and wanted to go back.  You could see the large cracks in the ice that form as the ice settles, the ice was over 10 inches thick; so I convinced Miles all would be fine and we kept across the lake. On the other side we walked along the shore until we came to some men who were spreading water from a bucket on the ice and had formed a small oval ice skating rink.  We watched them for a while as the kids kicked big pieces of ice around and we kept waiting for someone to show up with rental gear for ice skating.  Finally around 9:45 I asked where we could rent stuff for ice skating.  He told us to go down to the south end of the lake and at Qianhai we would find ice skating.

Walking around the corner the entire lake of QianHai (smaller than Houhai) was gated off and there was all kinds of skating going on.  There was a gate to enter the lake and a small gatehouse next to it where you purchased a 5 rmb ticket to get on the ice and then you could rent either ice skates, a two seater ice seat or an ice bike.  Ice bike’s cost a 150 rmb deposit and were 40 rmb per hour of use.  Miles went straight for the ice bike while Sofi and I opted for the ice chair.  She wanted her own, so we got two.

Ice Mongers

The ice bike is a standard back wheel with a metal frame as a base; there are two small metal runners on the back on either side and the front has a skate hooked the steering wheel.  The standard bike chain and pedals power the wheel and in a slip sliding fashion you move forward and you can somewhat steer in a gradual fashion with the front skate. There is also a brake, which drags a bit of metal on the ice and will eventually after a 100 meters or so stop you.  Usually you’ll use your feet to drag and stop as well.  The ice chairs are two seaters with metal runners along both sides.  To propel yourself your given tow “pokey ice sticks of death” which have large sharp metal spikes on their end and you stab them in the ice and push yourself forward.  You turn by pushing on one side or another and if you try to turn too hard you end up spinning out and twisting around; good fun.  Using your arms you can get yourself going quite fast across the ice, though you really are only going straight and you’ve got these massive spikes in your hands you could kill someone with.

Set across the ice are all these structures. There are food vendors selling fried potatoes (delicious), cotton candy, fried tofu and roasted sweet potatoes.  On one side were huge poles driven into the ice that supported a large metal slide into which there had been set thick blocks of ice forming a slide of ice. For 10 rmb you could slide down and across the frozen lake at the bottom.

Fried Taters - Chinese Style    The Ice Slide

An hour or so after we go there the Sheppards joined us and we skated around the ice, it was really a lot of fun.  The kids still didn’t want to leave even after 5 hours. As the day wore on the people kept coming and coming and the large lake started filling up with people, though there was still plenty of space to skate around.  In typical Chinese fashion they formed large lines of ice chairs and shouting “Jia You, Jia You” (Add gas, or go faster, go faster) as they skated around the island in the middle in a massive ice conga line.  Eventually Sofi and I swapped out our ice chairs for a pair of ice bikes and we set out playing tag.

The Ice Biking Gang

Tag on a slick surface is a lot of fun, but as you might expect makes the dangers of falling a little worse.  Once as a teenager we were playing tag on outdoor ice rink in Central Park in Logan and I crashed into Catherine Edwards and her skate sliced my right thumb splitting it open in a bloody mess. Sofi and I were chasing each other, she’d tagged me and I was chasing her and she jumped off her bike to escape me and slipped on the ice and smashed to the ice on her cheek.  I jumped of my bike to find her unconscious on the ice; she immediately woke up and I held her in my arms as she moaned and in a dazed fashion asked where she was.  We sat on the ice for a while, me holding her and worried if she was ok.  I kept asking her if she was ok, if she could see if she felt nauseous and if she wanted to go home.   In a testament to how much she was having and to the fact she was fine she eventually after 15 minutes said no she wanted to stay and we turned in her bike and she rode tandem with me around the ice for another hour before we went home after 6 hours of sliding around.  (We got Sofi checked out later at the clinic and x-ray’s confirmed no fracture and just a bad bruise)

Video :

Full set of photos on Flickr.

Categories: By Mark, living in beijing | 5 Comments

Logistical Renewal

In hindsight moving to China during the middle of Chinese New Year wasn’t such a great idea.   Trying to shuffle logistics with bureaucracy during the biggest Chinese holiday is problematic at best and very frustrating at its worst.  Then a year later you have to renew your work permit and you have to go through it all over again and its a headache.

Chinese New Year is a lunar holiday, so the date shifts from year to year.  In 2012 the Spring Festival falls the earliest it can in the calendar : Jan 23rd through Jan 28th.  Our work permit and residency permit expires on 2/16, you can start the renewal process 30 days prior to the expiration and you must file at least one day before the expiration.  The problem is that we are out of the country until Jan 29th (Sunday) which means the soonest we can start the process is Jan 30th, which is still fine except for the fact I have to be to mandatory meetings in Seattle starting 2/6 and I am not finished until 2/13, which leaves no time to return before the deadline of 2/15.  So the plan is to renew first after returning from Chinese New Year and go to Seattle late.   Here is how the process should play out :

  • Wait to start until we return from our Chinese New Year vacation on Sunday Jan 29th
  • Monday Jan 30th renew our temporary residency permit.  We have to wait until our return to the country to renew this so that the Chinese computer system shows us “in-country”   This renewal is done with the local police station and is usually best handled by your property management company if at all possible.  This requires taking the following paper work to the local police station :
    • original passport and copy of your passport
    • lease contract – stating your residency terms
    • certificate of property management company where you are living
    • landlord and property management information; their identification numbers etc
  • Renewal with a law agency that handles Work Permit and Residency Permit requires the following documents and takes seven days :
    • Original Passport of you and your family members
    • Original Work Permit
    •  Three passport sized photos of you and one for family members (White or light blue background)
    • Updated Temporary Residence Registration Form (see above)  of you and your family members issued by police station

Once again I got confused between the fact that a temporary residency permit is just your registration of where you live with the police station, you can and need one of these even if you are on a visitor’s visa vacationing in China. (Your hotel usually takes care of this for you).  But your Residence Permit is the right to live on a permanent basis in China.
We’ll see how it goes, hopefully we can juggle all the steps and bureaucracy goes smoothly.

Categories: By Mark, living in beijing | 2 Comments

Best of 2011

I’ve started trying to pick through my favorite photographs on a monthly basis. This is an attempt to cull through those monthly favorites for a best of 2011. You can watch a slideshow here. Click through each photo for more information about when and where.



Sticks for Storing


Miles on the Wall

Heaven's Ladder

Good Morning Mongolia

Hi from Mongolia

Lightning over Beijing

Hong Kong Dawn Patrol

Golden Hong Kong

Miles takes a break

Keeper of the Wall


Alpine Meadows

The Village

300 kmh



The Power of Vietnam

Smiling Eyes

Gorgeous Sofi ~ Gorgeous Light

The Wall's Descent

Pumpkin Cookies

A Smoke Filled Room

Lunch at the Noodle King

The Little Cook

Mr. Miles

He Saw the Revolution

The Winter Fields

The Regal Couple

The Boy Could See Forever

Merry Christmas

Little Ry Ry

The Ice was Cold

The Dark Pool

A New Day

Categories: By Mark, photography | 6 Comments

2011 Griffith Family Christmas Letter

Happy New Year from The Griffiths

What a wonderful busy busy year its been for everyone. This news letter recaps the family happenings, mostly written by Mark in the 3rd person.


PackedThis year began with us celebrating the New Year in Utah with the Zollingers. After the long drive back to Issaquah we frantically began cleaning out the house and getting ready to move to Beijing. As if that wasn’t enough Mark got sick for 17 days when a bad cold filled his ears up with fluid and he could barely hear. Sofi had her first and last(?) cheer competition where they took first place. Recovering just in time Mark’s team did an honorary Dawn Patrol to Rattlesnake Ledge and Mark did one last run on Cougar Mountain with Hope. Mark’s work gave him wonderful send off and the next day during lunch they celebrated with 2nd Annual Polar run and plunge in the icy waters of Lake Union. Nearing the end of the month we packed and packed and packed filling 8 duffel bags for our carry on luggage to China. Mark had the opportunity to fly over the Cascades the day before they left and then the family loaded up and flew to Los Angeles for a few days R&R at Disneyland before Beijing.


Happy Chinese New YearWe drove from LA to the Bay Area for our flight to Beijing. (There are no good flights or times from LAX to PEK). Mark took a reminiscent Dawn Patrol in Briones Park and got together with workmates from WebLogic/BEA days. We arrived in Beijing after our 12 hour flight, half of us sick : Miles threw up on Mark during the flight and Stac had bronchitis. Thus began jet-lag addled days of recovery and attempting the 100s of logistical details to settle in. We arrived in the middle of Chinese New Year and the fireworks each night were deafening, unbelievable that anyone can buy that much explosives and light them off anywhere. Mark spent hours visiting Ikea buying furniture and fixings and stuff; he almost went insane from that. Finally at the end of February we moved from temporary housing to our apartment and we started to settle in.


RedemptionMarch we started to settle into the routine of our lives in Beijing. The kids both settled into their new school BCIS, Mark had a chance to participate in some activities at school and really liked the faculty and their passion. Miles in an accident on the playground ran his tooth into another kids head and we thought he might loose his big front tooth, but a trip to the dentist and a small brace saved it. Our shipments finally arrived from Beijing and we finalized the last of our relocation. Our apartment felt like home as we hung our artwork and pictures on the walls. We met some wonderful people from Uganda and they introduced us to some ladies that braided Sofi’s hair and Miles got a super duper short hair cut. Sofi got a pet hamster (after much crying, whining and begging) and she met a great group of friends at school. Mark had a couple of co-workers visit from Seattle and on the weekend they hiked the Great Wall at GuBeiKou. Mark bought a bike and started riding to work, pretty crazy with the Beijing traffic. Stac started learning Chinese with a tutor named Seven and we ended with the kids teacher conferences at school.


LiuGongThe first of April is national holiday in China : QingMingJie or Tomb Cleaning Festival. We took a holiday to Guilin and Yangshuo, this was our first domestic flight in China and it started out on the wrong foot as we missed our flight. The scenery was beautiful with all the amazing karsts, things were going great when Stac slipped and dislocated her elbow. This resulted in a trip to a Chinese hospital where 4 doctors yanked her elbow back into place without any anesthesia. This put a big huge damper on her vacation experience; while Stac convalesced in the hotel the kids and Mark got out on the Li River, rode scooters around Yangshuo. Stac felt good enough the last few days that we went and saw the Impressions show on the Li River, which was fantastic. Back in Beijing Mark had another visitor from Seattle and on the weekend we climbed another section of the Great Wall outside of BaDaLing. Mark began the process of getting his Chinese Driver’s license and failed the written test twice. (1000 questions with a 100 randomly selected). Kiah arrived in Beijing to spend the summer with us after finishing her second semester at BYU-I and we belated celebrated her 19th birthday. The elementary school celebrated spring with a concert with all the kids dressing in costumes and singing. Stac, Kiah and Pooja visited the Llama Temple in Beijing. On the last day of April Mark and Miles took a trip to the Great Wall where they camped for the night. Miles loved that a village dog followed us and slept out of our tent all night.


The Yellow WallThe first of the month Miles class had Experience China Week where each day they toured different sites in Beijing. They learned things about Chinese culture, ate yummy food and even went on a rickshaw ride. BCIS threw another party : Spring in the City to raise money for the library. Mark finally passed his drivers license test on the third try after buying an iPhone app to help him study. The family all drove out to HuBei province (just outside of Beijing) where Mark and a bunch of his workmates ran the 1/2 Marathon at the Great Wall Marathon. Sofi got her hair rebraided again by Maria. We celebrated spring with a BBQ with the Beijing First Branch and afterwards Mark took a solo trip out to the Great Wall at JianKou.


Hong Kong Dawn PatrolThe beginning of June was another Chinese holiday : Dragon Boat Festival. We took off in our van with Zhang Chao, a friend of Mark’s from work and the Morris’s on an adventure to drive to Mongolia. We stopped in ChengDe and then drove into inner Mongolia where we camped on a small farm next to a beautiful lake. The stars were bright and beautiful, the lamb was tasty and the horses were everywhere. On the drive back we stopped in ChengDe again for a night to see the Great Red Pavilion. June brought Mark and Stac’s 22nd wedding anniversary as well as Stac’s birthday and they celebrated with a long weekend in Hong Kong while Kiah stayed with the kids, we had a lovely time even though it was dripping hot! Mark and the kids took Kiah to the Great Wall at MuTianYu, they loved riding down the alpine slide. The family was all addicted to Plants Vs. Zombies, but Miles was pretty obsessed and ended up buying lots of the little stuffed animal figurines from the game. Stac paused to reflect on six months in China and how she felt she was turning a corner.


Keeper of the WallRain brought some of the clearest skies to Beijing we had ever seen. Mark had another visitor from Seattle and this time the entire family drove out to Jiankou to spend the night in a farmer hotel while Mark and his coworkers climbed the Great Wall. The family took their annual leave for the States, accompanying Kiah back home to school. We all enjoyed spending time in Utah, Mark got out for several hikes up to the Wellsvilles and some old friends : Tom and Curg. Miles and Mark went on a 10 mile backpacking trip up to High Creek Lake. Miles carried his mask and snorkle the entire trip but chickened out swimming cause the water was too cold. Mark and Miles hiked up to Tony Grove where they met Stac, her parents and her brother Craig and Kathy for a picnic lunch with Kiah and her boyfriend Ramon. On the drive back down to Logan Ramon asked for Kiah’s hand in marriage and Mark gulped and said yes. While in Utah Sofi consumed at least a dozen snow cones from the Sno-Shack. As the month closed Mark wrote up his thoughts on spending half a year living in China.


A Grand TimeThe first of August the family flew to Seattle where Mark worked for three weeks. This meant it was time for run and plunge’s during lunch. Mark continued his water jumping antics with a jump in the very cold Puget Sound. Mark took a celebratory hike to Alta Mountain on the weekend and jumped in Rachel Lake on the way back. While Stac and the kids ran around Seattle Mark took a long weekend and flew to Bozeman where he and Seth drove to Wyoming and climbed the Grand Teton. This time they summited and celebrated by jumping into Phelps Lake and with steak in Yellowstone on the ride home. Another week of work and the family minus Kiah, flew back to Beijing. We arrived in home just in time to celebrate Sofi’s 12th birthday with her friends at DinTaiFung.


DoorwayThe month began with Miles and Mark hiking a very long and scratchy way to the 9 Eye Tower at the Great Wall. Another Chinese national holiday Mid Autumn Festival gave us a long weekend and we took the fast train (185 mph) to Nanjing to visit Julie Lefgren. Mark met an old workmate, Smitty, from WebLogic days for breakfast in Beijing. Sofi played in her schools soccer team and had an all day tournament where Mark watched her play for 8 hours! Mark took some family photos for Robert Zhou and his family in Beijing; Robert leases our car and has been a God-send to us in China.



Happy Halloween The first week of October is Golden Week in China, when they celebrate the founding of their country : China’s 4th of July. We planned as a family to visit Vietnam. However several weeks prior Stac got word that her Father’s health was failing so we cancelled her ticket and she flew to Utah to spend time with him while Mark, Miles and Sofi flew to Vietnam. (Since then Stac’s parents have entered a nursing home and her Dad’s health has improved dramatically). Mark and the kids visited Stan and Nga in Hanoi. They were amazed by all the scooters in Vietnam. Then they flew to HoiAn in central Vietnam where they stayed on the beach playing in the pool and the ocean for stretches of 8 hours at a time. Mark and the kids took an amazing motorcycle ride with a Kari and Steve (who work with Mark at Amazon in Beijing) through the countryside of Vietnam to see the ruins of My Son. One final day playing in the surf and they returned to Beijing be rejoined with Stac. More visitors from Seattle at Mark’s work and another weekend trip to the Great Wall at JianKou. Mark spent 20 hours in Harbin on a recruiting trip with work, way north of Beijing near Russia the town has lots of old church’s and great sausage; in the winter they have the ice festival there. Our church had their annual trip to the Great Wall where we hiked and slept on the Wall and had church there as well. Sofi had another all day soccer tournament for the championship, her team lost by 1 point in sudden death. Halloween came to Beijing with a party at the church and we even managed to carve pumpkins as a family right before the last day of the month. We had lots of trick-or-treaters come to our apartment.


Welcome to MovemberNovember is Movember, the month of the mustache where Mark grows his stache of awesome. Miles turned 8 and we celebrated in ChaoYang Park on the ropes course. One of Mark’s co-workers got married and invited Mark to the wedding. It was an interesting experience to observe the different traditions. Stac and the young women went Ice Skating at Solana for an activity. Miles got baptized at the pool on the floor above our church, the water was extra cold because the heat hadn’t been turned on yet. Mark turned 44 and celebrated by taking the day off from work and camping out at the Great Wall on a very cold night. Thanksgiving was celebrated on Saturday since Thursday was just another working day in China. We had a football turkey bowl in the morning against the Beijing 2nd Branch. Julie came up from Nanjing to visit us for Thanksgiving dinner and we also shared the meal with the Sheppards, the Putnams, the Floyds as well as George from Uganda. Despite the turkey arriving cold the meal was a smashing success and every bit of food tasted a little bit like home. November ended how it began with a celebration of the mustache.


The Temple BetweenKnowing that we’d be gone from our Beijing home for Christmas we got a tree early in the month, an artificial one purchased down by the US Embassy. The kids banned us from helping and set up the tree and trimmed it by themselves. Mark had a visitor from Seattle, Tom, his former boss and now his bosses, bosses boss and he took him to farmer’s hotel at JianKou where they slept on the traditional heated beds known as kangs. We celebrated Christmas with our church party and Santa visited the party as well. Before we left for the US we had a lovely dinner with Stac’s tutor Seven and her family and Mark had a holiday dinner with his group at work in a Mongolian Yurt in the middle of Beijing. Then we departed for the US  : a journey that involved 6 separate flights, 10 different residences in 9 different cities; 3 receptions, two major holidays and a National Park. We were busy!  We flew into San Francisco where Mark got messed up with international datelines and our flight to Salt Lake wasn’t until the next day so we spent the night at Union Square. Saturday we spent the evening at our Uncle Doug’s house in Bountiful. Then we drove up to Logan for Kiah and Ramon’s wedding on the 20th. The ceremony was beautiful, simple and powerful; the binding of two as one. The reception that night was a festive occasion and we enjoyed reconnecting and chatting with family and friends. After the wedding we set into kamikaze Christmas mode trying to get ready for the 25th. We drove down to Salt Lake to see the lights and shop for Santa. Christmas Eve we brought Stac’s parents from their nursing home to their house to spend the night with us and the next Christmas morning. Santa found the kids even in Logan and we had a lovely Christmas together. Christmas evening we spent with the Zollingers enjoying turkey dinner with all the fixings. A day of rest was followed by a flight to Las Vegas where we attended an Open House at Ramon’s house. The next day we drove up to spend the night in Springdale outside Zion National Park. Mark hiked to Angel’s Landing as well got out for a Dawn Patrol. Driving back to Las Vegas we flew to Seattle where we had an Open House in Issaquah and had a great time reconnecting with our old ward members. On Saturday the last day of the year Mark went on his first snowshoe of the year up at Snoqualmie Pass with Shon. Quietness, whiteness and snow were a great way to end the year.

Family Summaries


New FramesRunning ManThe Stache of AwesomeHappy Movember Two Shirt Tuesday
I had a lot of changes this year leaving my beloved mountains in Washington for the urban countryside of Beijing. I transitioned to being a software development manager over a couple of teams in Beijing at I’ve enjoyed the challenges at work and I’ve loved as a family the opportunity we’ve had to be able to experience China and travel the surrounding areas. Having a church family to ease the transition made everything so much easier and after six months we started meshing with those figures in the ward who weren’t transient. I love driving in China, its a new challenge that provides some unique driving experiences and I treasure my visits to the Great Wall. I don’t get out as often but getting out at the Great Wall isn’t a bad trade off. My outdoor highlight was climbing the Grand Teton with Seth, he led; I followed. My family highlights was our camping trip to Mongolia and Kiah’s beautiful wedding. Looking forward to the new year and new challenges.

Happy Chinese New YearSlurping them DownStac in Hong KongThe Brown Eyed Girl of the Steppes
This is Stacey writing now, just an FYI. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride this past year and I’m not a fan of roller coaster rides, but I survived. I held on tight with the move, held even tighter during some bumpy parts of 2011 and so far the ride has not come to a stop. China has come with some good and bad days but overall we are having a great time. The kids transitioned quite easily, which was a blessing. I think it took me over 6 months to feel like I was settling in and not just in China for a short time. I had to look at it as our home not just a long vacation. I’ve made some great friends, seen some very cool sites, eaten some yummy food and some interesting food and I’m learning to be patient (though it might kill me to learn that virtue). Now that Kiah’s wedding is over and we are on our way back to China, maybe we can rest for a bit. Oh yeah, I forgot, in two weeks we are going to Myanmar for 10 days(to get out of China during Chinese New Year). Looks like the roller coaster ride will start up again.


Spring in BeijingSmiles from ChengdeK is for KiahWedding Dolls
Kiah had a huge year. She completed her first year of college at BYU-I and got married in December. She came and stayed with the family in Beijing for 3.5 months, taught English and loved all the delicious Chinese food. She hiked the Great Wall, camped in Mongolia and went crazy shopping with Stac and Sofi. Kiah’s wedding was definitely a huge challenge as she planned pretty much every last detail as her family was in Beijing. She did an amazing job balancing school (She got almost straight A’s) and running all the wedding details. She looked gorgeous at her wedding and she married a great young man in Ramon.


Little Miss SunshineSofi's BraidsTo Compensate for her Ordinary ShoesThe Little Cook
Sofi had a great year. She turned 12 and has a great group of friends she’s made at school. She does well in her studies, manages her own time and schedule. We just wish we could get her to faithfully carry a cell phone. (Go figure). A common Saturday activity is to take a taxi to SanLiTun with her girl friends, go eat Pizza at The Tree, get her nails done at YaShaw and then eat crepes. She’s a great shopper who can bargain with the best in Beijing and get good prices. She continues her love of cooking, making bread and she can now make a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies from scratch.


PVZ : Cherries and Chilli PepperMilesMr. MilesMr. Bowtie
Miles made great strides at school over this past year. His reading and writing have really taken off, though he’s got a bit further to go with his spelling. He learned to swim like a fish at school during swim time and his after school activities have been kung fu, paper airplane making and more swimming. He loves riding his bike or scooter around the apartment complex where we live and has many good friends that he plays with. His love for Star Wars, Legos and Transformers continues, especially Star Wars the Clone Wars cartoon series. Miles turned 8 this year, and he made a big step with his baptism; He thought it was pretty cool (and cold) to have it happen in a swimming pool. Miles enjoys hiking and camping with his Dad and has his hand-me-down iPad with him everywhere.

Categories: By Mark, By Stacey, living in beijing | 8 Comments

The 1000 Missed

Blue Day Run
This year (2011) I missed hitting my 1000 mile goal.  Why?  Several reasons….

  1. We moved to China.   I lived on the 29th floor of a high rise on on Cougar Mountain two minute walk to trails;  But we did live right across from Chao Yang Park which had kilometers of trails and I did run there often.  But the move was definitely a factor, though I did end up riding my bike to and from work most every day. In the end the biggest impact of the move really was on my elevation since Beijing is really flat and there is no close place to hike.  I had to settle for monthly trips to the Great Wall, I know that sounds real rough but I was used to hiking/running with elevation on a weekly basis and I have felt my legs go a bit and my left knee is acting up again when I push it.  I’ll have to add in more stairs this year (walking up and down the 29 floors in our building several times).  China has a couple of sub-issues :
  2. The Great Firewall – I know this seems a little lame.  But part of the reason for the goal is having a daily/weekly goal in front of you to motivate and inspire.  This goal has taught me over and over that you accomplish great things one little task at a time day by day not through some huge momentous event all at once.  Any great thing anyone has done happens because of a 1000 little things they accomplished and achieved days before. Basically China blocks lots of sites, Google Docs is one of those sites, that is where I track my mileage.  You can get around the GFW by using proxy servers or VPN but it slows things way way down and somewhere in August my spreadsheet got too large to load over the proxy server and most of the time I couldn’t update it.  So I fell by the way side keeping track of where I was and this took a bit of the challenge out of me.
  3. Pollution.  No doubt about it Beijing has some bad pollution.  There are days when its really bad.  And there are days that are not so bad.  And finally there are days are crystal clear.  Clear days are usually because of a big wind and if its winter then it means that its also freezing freezing cold.  I will run in not-so-bad days and clear days if the wind won’t kill me but the bad days cut down on how many days you feel like you can actually get out without taking years off your lungs.
  4. Wedding : Basically we were on the road for the last 2 and half weeks of December with Kiah’s wedding.  6 flights, 9 different residences and 3 receptions in 5 cities, two major holidays and a National Park.  We were busy.  Usually in December I am behind on my miles so I am doing things like running 23 miles on Christmas Eve but not this year, with everything going on I didn’t have the time or energy to be doing all of that and run.  So I pretty much resigned myself to not hitting the goal as we approached November; I’d much rather enjoy the wedding than hit my personal goals.
And in the end I still got out; I still kept busy and active each week, just not always with the miles to add up to the goal. Who knows maybe I got close but I didn’t keep track for the last two months at all.  Though even amidst the wedding festivities I ran a fast 5K at -5 degrees in Mendon, hiked to Angel’s Landing and Dawn Patrolled to the morning light.  And New Years Day to start out the New Year I went on a run with Hope and I didn’t even record how far I went; maybe I’ve moved beyond measuring.  Somehow I doubt it but we’ll see.
Categories: By Mark | Leave a comment

Best of December 2011

Well 2011 is in the bag, its over and done.  December was a busy month with lots of photo ops.  Click on any photo for more details and info.


He Saw the Revolution


The Mighty Finn


The Yurt


The Golden Gate


The Winter Fields


The Regal Couple


Jump for Joy


The Boy Could See Forever


Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas


Little Ry Ry


The Ice was Cold


Ice and Fire


The Range


The Morning Light


The Dark Pool


A New Day

Categories: photography | Leave a comment

A Winter Visit to the Wall

The 9 Eye Tower Blue

When I lived in Issaquah (just outside Seattle) I could easily visit the mountains almost at anytime; a meeting free morning at work and a late arrival combined with an extra early Dawn Patrol would enable me to spend a few precious hours racing up and down the mountain trails of the Cascades.

The Great Wall are my Cascades in Beijing. There aren’t many hiking trails in the mountains that surround Beijing that don’t lead to the spine of the Great Wall that follows their rugged ridge crests.   One can spend many hours climbing their steps.  A visit to the Wall is not under taken so easily, though I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Wall in every season and am still working on a goal to visit the wall in each month.

Tom Taylor was in Beijing on business; Friday evening we were joined by Zhang Chao as we drove the JingCheng express way to HuaiRou and towards the valley of JianKou.  The traffic of the 4th ring road was slow as usual but eventually gave way to darkness that enveloped us as we became the only car on the winding road out of HuaiRou snaking over the mountain that sit at the edge of Beijing.

The village of XiZha sits at the end of a small narrow road, not much wider than single lane, in a valley surrounded by rugged mountains.   There are no roads that leave the valley which sits at 620 meters above sea level, around 580 meters higher than Beijing, the mountain tops that encircle the valley are another 300 meters higher.  We called ahead at HuaiRou to order our dinner to be ready when we arrived.

Cook in the Kitchen

We parked in front of the Zhao’s home and walked up the stairs. Since I’ve now been there around a half dozen times the welcome me when I arrive.  They invited us into their home to eat our supper.  The have a long courtyard home, a doorway with a thick heavy blanket hanging over the entrance. Inside is a small room, on either side of the doorway is a 1 meter square brick oven/stove. There is a small hole where wood is stoked, on top are two, huge woks that are covered with the largest lids I’ve ever seen.  Each of those stoves and woks serve a dual function of cooking as well as providing heat. At the back of the small entry room is a shrine with GuanYin, with fruit offerings and incense burning, a rare sight in China after 50 years of communist influence.

Having Supper on a Kang

The Zhao’s live in the room to the right as you enter.  Half of the length of the entire room is a meter+ high bed known as a kang.  The bed is made of bricks, the interior of which is piped with the flue from the stove in the adjacent entryway.  The top of the brick is covered with a woven mat; a 1.5 meter stack of quilts at one end of the bed provides covers for sleeping. After seeing these traditional beds you can understand why all beds in China are hard as well bricks. The heat comes from the stove outside. A fire is burned throughout the day, and the bricks in the bed stay hot throughout the entire night.

Pony Rides

We sat on the kang, around a small portable table they set up as they brought in a large BBQ trout, two plates of egg fried rice, some fried egg and some greens sautéed with garlic.  While eating I had Chao ask Lu Guihong (Zhao Fuqing’s husband) a few questions. She was born in this valley (she appears to be in her mid to late fifties). She said as a little girl they farmed and she never went to the Wall, only crazy people went up to the Wall, it was too dangerous. She didn’t even go to the Wall until she was older. Around 12 years ago a photographer was in the area and needed. Place to spend the night. The Zhao’s offered their home, and fed them dinner. Eventually as word spread they built several guest rooms and started their hostel.

Fish Supper

After dinner Tom was tired and settled in for the night.  Chao and I sat in his room on his large kang and set up my laptop to watch a movie before turning in.  The bed was covered in two quilts but you could feel the heat radiating up from the bottom.  When my hands got cold I just lifted up the quilts and put them on the bricks where they quickly warmed up to the point of almost being too hot. After the movie I went to my adjacent room; my kang was heated from the stove in Chao’s room.  My quilts didn’t feel warm to the touch and I was worried about being cold. I pulled the two thicker quilts on top of me and as soon as I lay down I could feel the heat radiating up from below.  I was toasty warm the entire night, the bed was a bit hard but as long as you lay on your back it was very comfortable.

The Kang

The next morning my alarm went off at 5:15 as I got up to get my bag ready for the hike. A made a quick dash to the bathroom, three very rustic squatters behind the rooms.  Through the open window frame, which thankfully had no glass (the ventilation and fresh air was very welcome)  I could see the harvest moon shining over the mountains.   By 6 am, Tom and Chao were up and we were off.  It was bitter cold, we had on all our layers, hats, gloves, coats etc.  We set off up the middle path through the fields and up the valley towards its end.   It was dark out still, Chao has his head lamp, I used the flashlight app on my iPhone and Tom walked in between us.  We arrived at the Wall and climbed up the rocky steps and onto the crumbled section of the Wall below the Beijing Knot.  The morning sky was slowing turning from the dark black, to deep blue with bright reds; the sky was split with the opening of a new day and the sun rising far away behind the horizon.  We stopped and took photos along the way as we climbed the Wall heading north towards the 9 Eye Tower.  This section of the Wall is one of my favorites because its unrestored but is still in great condition, the foundation is laid in white dolomite granite which offers great contrast to the green in the summer and the dark grays of the bare trees in the winter.

A December Morn

Along the ridge line the wind whipped and tore at us, chaffing our bare skin.  As we climbed up the steep ridge line toward the tower where the Wall tumbled to nothing more than a pile of rocks our efforts warmed us.  Finally we reached the top of the ridge to where one of the largest towers stands, called the 9 Eyed Tower for its 9 arched windows on each side (typically they only have 3 per side).  We climbed the steps and huddled inside trying to escape the wind. I pulled out some Craisens and nuts and a bag of cold but still pliable peanut butter which I squeezed onto a Nature Valley Bar (one which I had, and fortuitously one that Tom brought along). The wind was so cold by the time I finished my hands were numb and aching from the cold.  We all had to keep stomping our feet to stay warm, after ten minutes of enjoying this it was time to go.  We walked back down the stairs to the side of the tower where we saw the plaque commemorating the Chinese government designating this as a protected zone in 1985 and we peered at the large fading stone stele carved from time of the Ming emperor Wang Li who reigned from  1563 – 1620, amazing to imagine something over 500 years old.

Early Morning Tower

For our return we opted to leave the wall at the bottom of the steep ridge and walk back down the valley towards the valley of JianKou.  This long return walks along a pleasant trail; in the winter time you can clearly see all the terracing throughout the valley floor, though agriculture seems to have been abandoned for many years.  We stopped at the grave mounds, technically illegal in China as only cremation is allowed, but old traditions carry one.  Back down at another section of the village we stopped to talk with an old man with one arm who was carrying a homemade digging stick made from rebar.  He was going to hunt for roots to make pipes from that he sells.  Back at the road we walked the 2 kilometers back down the road the Zhao’s hostel, admiring the neatly lined river and bridges among the vacant fields.

Another visit to the Wall in winter, though I’ve yet to see it in the snow. I look forward to visiting in January for a white Wall wonderland if the dry northern Beijing winter gives us any snow.

Categories: By Mark, hiking, outdoors, photography | 2 Comments

Best of November 2011

Another month living in China, another best of, this month being Movember it begins and ends with the mustache. Click through on any photo to comment or for more details.


The Stache of Awesome




A Chinese Wedding


A Smoke Filled Room


The Girls


The Dark Portal


Black is the Color of My True Loves Hair


Her Bright Smiling Eyes


Lunch at the Noodle King


He Guards the Way


The Woodcutter


The end of the Day


The Ancient Wall


Put Me In Coach




Running Through


The Little Cook



Categories: By Mark, photography | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment